The FBI yesterday arrested a District of Columbia man and charged him with the New Year's Eve theft at the National Portrait Gallery of four handwritten notes signed by President Abraham Lincoln and three of his most famous Civil War generals.

Acting on a tip passed on by a dealer in historic documents, FBI officials said they had arrested Norman J. Chandler, 39, of 3324 Military Rd. NW, at his home yesterday morning and that they had recovered three of the four stolen documents.

Chandler is charged with theft of government property. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison or fined $10,000, or both.

The handwritten notes by Lincoln and Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade were recovered, and the FBI said it has information it expects will lead to the fourth missing document, a handwritten note by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the flamboyant officer later killed by the Sioux at Little Bighorn.

Initial estimates had put the value of the documents at $90,000, but the FBI said a later appraisal had put their worth at about $10,000.

FBI spokesman Ron Dervish credited extensive media coverage of the National Portrait Gallery theft with aiding in recovery of the documents.

"The documents were presented to a dealer in documents, and because of the media publicity the dealer knew they were stolen," Dervish said. The approach to the dealer, whom Dervish declined to identify, was made within the last two weeks, he said.

The FBI could not provide information about how the theft from the gallery's display case may have been carried out. A guard at the gallery, located at Eighth and F streets NW, reported the documents missing on the afternoon of Dec. 31 after noticing that the metal frame of the plexiglass case had been pried open at one corner.

The investigation was conducted with the help of D.C. police and the Smithsonian Institution Office of Protective Service.

The notes were taken from a railing-mounted display case overlooking a stairway at the east end of the Portrait Gallery, where an 18-foot-wide painting of "Grant and His Generals" is hung. The painting is by artist Ole Peter Hansen Balling.

The earliest of the notes, dated Sept. 23, 1864, was written by Lincoln to introduce the painter to Grant and to facilitate Balling's movements in the combat zone. The other three notes, all dated in 1866, were appreciations written by the three generals after they had seen the completed painting, which depicted them galloping on horseback with two dozen other Union military leaders. All four documents were given to the gallery in 1966.